Wednesday, February 13, 2019
The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye: Reading Room Review
Lyndsay Faye always manages to find unique stories to tell. Well, I say find, but what she really does is create unique stories built around diligent research she does on the hidden facts of people and places in history. From Jack the Ripper to the early days of the New York City Police Department, this author discloses the unvarnished truth of struggle and survival in the trenches. And, she does so through characters who take our breath away with their perseverance and bravery. There must always be people willing to stand up against the ills of society, the mistreatment of fellow human beings, and Lyndsay Faye gives readers these people’s stories so poignantly that we are forever touched by them. Her characters aren’t perfect people, they have their flaws, but they step up when the stepping is needed. Because I learn important, forgotten or hidden pieces of our history and lessons about what counts doesn’t mean that there is anything dry or didactic about Faye’s writing. Her stories from which I learn so much are gripping masterpieces of narrative in full color. They will tear your heart out but renew your faith in the possibility of good endeavor.
The Paragon Hotel is the tale of Alice James, aka “Nobody,” but she is also the vehicle by which the stories of so many others are told. Beginning in the Harlem district of New York City at the turn of the 20th century and crossing the country to the city of Portland, Oregon in the early 1920s, it is a tale of survival and identity and love and loss. Alice is smack in the middle of the turbulent issues of each place. Being half Italian, she is destined to be involved with Italians and Sicilians and by extension, the Mafia fighting for control of Harlem. Born to a prostitute mother, Alice lives at the hotel where her mother works, and the moniker “Nobody” has been attached to Alice because of her blending in and out of scenes without notice. When a friend’s father is brutally murdered by the mob, fifteen-year-old Alice ends up living at another hotel under the protection of a man vying for control against the Corleone mafia. She is valued for her ability to go unnoticed and thus becomes the ears and eyes of Mr. Salvatici, her benefactor.
All good things must come to an end, or in this case, the mafia life can send a girl running, especially when she has a bullet hole or two in her side. Alice and $50,000 catch a cross-country train after she narrowly escapes with her life hanging in threads. She luckily makes acquaintance with one of the train porters named Max. Because of Max and his connections to the Paragon Hotel in Portland, Oregon, and its resident doctor, Dr. Pendleton, Alice lives. The Paragon Hotel is an all-black establishment in Portland, and Max and Dr. Pendleton fit its requirements for residence. Alice does not, but she is allowed to stay and recover from her wounds.
It seems Alice has gone from one city’s terrors to another, as she quickly learns that Portland and Oregon are staunchly pro-white population and decidedly anti-black. The Ku Klux Klan has moved quite visibly into the area under the guise of "a political rallying tool and a charitable club," and most of the white population is happy to accept that lie. As Alice becomes closer and closer to those at the Paragon Hotel, she understands the precarious position people of color hold in the community and just how brutal the Klan is in its dealing with them. When a mulatto child who lives at the hotel goes missing and the black community searches for him, racism quickly escalates into a fight for survival. Alice is clearly on the side of her hotel friends and uses her chameleon skills honed in New York to aid in their struggle and search, but there are secrets among the friends that prove dangerous to their safety.
So it is that readers have another brilliant book from Lyndsay Faye. There may be equals, but there are none better at weaving words into such a mesmerizing flow. She has a command over the language and its use that makes a reader giddy with satisfaction, each word hitting its mark. For those of us who get tingles when a phrase is turned just so, reading this book is an experience of mind tingling delight. One of the things I most loved about The Paragon Hotel and its main character Alice “Nobody” James is the witty dialogue. The art of quick and clever repartee is something author Lyndsay Faye’s writing has always been well versed in, and readers will enjoy Alice's retorts for their engaging smartness.
Fans of Lyndsay Faye will be thrilled with The Paragon Hotel, and new readers will be so enthralled that they will quickly be scrambling to read all her previous works, too.